WASHINGTON, DC — An effort to describe the diversity of birds led to one of the first modern color systems. Published by Smithsonian ornithologist Robert Ridgway in 1886, A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists categorizes 186 colors alongside diagrams of birds. In 1912, Ridgway self-published an expanded version for a broader audience — Color Standards and Color Nomenclature — that included 1,115 colors. Some referenced birds, like “Warbler Green” and “Jay Blue,” while others corresponded to other elements of nature, as in “Bone Brown” and “Storm Gray.”
Ridgway wrote in his 1912 preface that “the nomenclature of colors remains vague and, for practical purposes, meaningless, thereby seriously impeding progress in almost every branch of industry and research.” He railed against confusing trade names like “‘zulu,’ ‘serpent green,’ ‘baby blue,’ ‘new old rose,’ ‘London smoke,’ etc., and such nonsensical names as ‘ashes of roses’ and ‘elephant’s breath.’”
A copy of Ridgway’s 1912 book is on view in the Smithsonian Libraries’ Color in a New Light.Installed in two large display cases on the ground floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the exhibition examines the point at which art, history, and science blend through color. Ridgway’s research is joined by the work of 19th-century painter Gerald Handerson Thayer, whose studies of animals disguising themselves influenced military camouflage; a discussion of Fiestaware, which was painted with orange-red uranium oxide glaze and thus became unintentionally radioactive; and the history of Tyrian Purple pigment, made by mashing up snails.
Color systems date back centuries, at least to Richard Waller’s 1686 Tabula colorum physiologica. Yet bird-watching hones a sharp eye for color differentiation, so Ridgway had an edge — as well as a drive for perfection enabled by 19th-century synthetic dye advancements. This new color technology wasn’t without its dangers. One sample in Ridgway’s book is labeled “Scheele’s Green,” a reference to Wilhelm Scheele’s toxic mix of arsenic and copper.